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Instrument charges sound mournful note

A bleak picture has emerged of struggling music services in the metropolitan district councils where the opportunity to learn an instrument is increasingly based on ability to pay rather than ability to play.

More than three-quarters of the 25 metropolitan districts responding to the survey are currently charging for music tuition. Another local authority - the Wirral - is on the point of doing so.

The charges, which range from Pounds 8 to Pounds 12-per-hour in Coventry to Pounds 27-per-hour in Birmingham are made either to schools, parents or both.

The telephone survey, which had a response rate of nearly 70 per cent among the councils, also showed that a third had cut the number of instrumental teachers they employed in the past two years.

Nearly half (48 per cent) no longer had a music adviser or were about to lose the post, and the same number (48 per cent) said cuts were having a bad effect on youth orchestras and bands.

Sunderland has just been told that its service will die in August Garry Firth, principal of Kirklees Music School, which became a registered charity in 1992 but still receives some local authority funding, said: "Three to four years ago we had twice the number of teachers and far more pupils were learning instruments because they didn't have to pay a penny.

"Parents write to us every day saying they're unemployed, their homes have been repossessed, and they can't keep up their children's lessons. It's very sad. This has already had a major effect on youth orchestras, some of which have folded."

The majority of metropolitan district councils - 68 per cent - said there had been no decline in the variety of instruments taught, but 8 per cent reported a decrease. 24 per cent said they were offering more instruments, including keyboards and guitars, but this was sometimes at the expense of traditional ones, such as cellos. Nearly a third had introduced charges for instrument hire ranging from Pounds 5 a year in Newcastle to between Pounds 15 and Pounds 28 a term in Wigan. In some cases, local authorities and schools had got rid of their entire stock and all pupils had to buy or lease instruments.

Philip Skelton, manager of Bradford Music Service which does not charge for instrument hire, said there was a danger Britain would become a nation of flute, trumpet and clarinet players.

Although his centrally-funded service was flourishing, in areas where market forces had taken over, increasing numbers of children were choosing the cheapest and easiest options.

"The vast majority of parents can't possibly afford to buy a bassoon for example, but a flute is more manageable.

"We have such terrific music going on here in the heart of brass band country. At birth, children come out with a trumpet in their mouth. It would be a tragedy to lose all this if we end up going the same way as other local authorities," he commented.

The survey also revealed that 12 per cent of metropolitan district councils now have no LEA funding, while 48 per cent are partially funded.

A music inspector from one northern authority, who asked not to be named, said the LEA service had been slashed in the past few years from more than 20 full-time equivalent teachers to a rump of two - including himself.

He had lost control of what was going on and was unable to balance the number of instruments being taught.

"We're beginning to run out of bassoons, oboes and double basses. The majority of our primary schools now don't have any peripatetic music going on at all and we've shrunk almost beyond recognition.

"The future is very uncertain. I'm taking early retirement and I don't know if I'll be replaced," he added.

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